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Teacher-Jail Bill Passes Kansas Senate

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) - The Kansas Senate approved a bill that could send public schoolteachers to jail if they teach "harmful material," and the state House will consider it Wednesday.

The state Senate approved SB 56 by 26-14 vote on Feb. 25. It deletes an exemption in a public morals law that protects K-12 public, private and parochial schoolteachers from being prosecuted for presenting material deemed harmful to minors.

The bill retains that protection for universities, museums and libraries.

The state House will address the bill on Wednesday.

Both houses of the Kansas Legislature are controlled by Republicans.

The bill's definition of "harmful material" includes depictions of nudity, sexual conduct, homosexuality, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse "in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community with respect to what is suitable for minors."

Teachers could be charged with a class B misdemeanor and sent to jail for 6 months for teaching materials that a "reasonable person" would find to lack "serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors."

Opponents call the bill unconstitutionally vague.

Proponents say they are trying to protect children.

"It is illegal in society at large to exhibit to minors patently offensive material that has no literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value," state Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, told the Topeka Capital Journal. "We should expect the same for children in primary school, middle school and high school."

Another lawmaker said that criminalizing the teaching of harmful material will ensure that teachers take notice.

"If you don't put any kind of enforcement in it, it doesn't mean anything," Mary Pilcher Cook, R-Shawnee, the bill's sponsor, told NBC-TV affiliate KSHB 41.

"In a nutshell, it has to be highly offensive at the community standard. It helps alert teachers that this is very important. This is important to protecting our children from this kind of material," Pilcher Cook said.

Critics, and many teachers, say the bill goes too far, and too vaguely.

"This bill threatens to put a blanket of silence on every public school in Kansas," said Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association.

If a parent objects to classroom materials, there are already mechanisms in place, such as taking objections to school administrators, Baltzell said.

"This goes beyond that. If I object, and if my child was exposed to what I believe was harmful, I can now bypass that process and file a criminal complaint. Even things that are standard in many classrooms, if one person objects, can be carried to the D.A.'s office."

Baltzell said he once had to defend teaching a Harry Potter novel in a Florida classroom after a parent protested that the book was based on witchcraft.

"Now, instead of having a parent complain, I could be clapped in irons for that," Baltzell said. "As a teacher, do I have to take my little classroom library and put it behind an 'adults-only' curtain?"

If S.B. 56 becomes law, teachers will second-guess lesson plans, omitting a particular Shakespearean play or removing from the classroom an art book about Michelangelo that contains a nude David, he said.

"These are now things that teachers would have to consider because they could be thrown in jail and have their careers ruined," Baltzell said.

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